Interview – Joel Hodgson – Riffing Myself

BN – So what got you started down this whole crazy, messed up road of bad movies?

JH – Well there were a couple of moments that happened in my life that all kind of lead me to it. I think more than anything after I had done standup I was trying to figure out a way to do a TV show that was inexpensive. I had quit doing standup and I moved back to Minneapolis, and I really wanted to try to create something there. I had lived in L.A. for three years, and for whatever reason it just wasn’t happening there creatively. It worked fine for doing standup, but other than that the only things they really had were sitcoms. I was offered to be on a sitcom, and I think if I really pursued it I could’ve written on a sitcom, but that just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

So I went back to Minneapolis and was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought maybe I could do a local show. And the thing that dawned on me was the idea of public domain movies. I had read about this notion, because you grow up from the time you’re a little kid, that little copyright C at the bottom of stuff, or, you know, you just grow up in a world where, what is that? What is that? Oh, it’s a copyright and someone owns that, and if you do something with it it’s against the law, you have to get their permission.

So I knew that joking on a movie would be something if someone owned that, they probably wouldn’t want us to, and would say, absolutely not. You can’t do that. So I kind of took the path of least resistance and said, oh, well I know there are these public domain movies, maybe I can do it that way, maybe there’s a way to do this show with public domain movies. I grew up on movies. I grew up loving them, and I think there’s that time when you’re a kid and it dawns on you, there are good movies, but then wait, there are these movies that aren’t as good, but in some ways there just as fun to watch as the good movies.

BN – Sometimes even more so, I think.

JH – Yeah, right? So I think that was kind of what I was looking for. That was what I was interested in at the time. Then it was like, I had this rough idea for a show, and it had a guy, and it had a robot, and it was kind of based on Omega Man, where Charlton Heston is in the movie theater by himself watching Woodstock. I kind of thought it was like that, and it was after the apocalypse and then met Jim Mallon, who was a local guy who was a production manager at this local TV show, and he consulted me about a show he was working on that was like the Gong Show but for comedians. I met with him and he picked my brain about comics. When I got home I was like, wait a minute, I know this guy who has a TV studio and it sounds like he’s looking for stuff. And I started thinking about that idea I had, and I looked at it, and it’s not a great premise for a comedy. It’s during the apocalypse, like a zombie uprising. So I thought maybe I could change it, and I realized there was a guy and there were robots, and then I thought of this movie Silent Running, which is about a guy in space with robot companions. So I just transposed that idea, and that’s what I pitched Jim Mallon. This idea about a guy in space forced to watch bad movies. That was kind of how we started. I think we did what, Twenty-two episodes on KTMA, and that was really the workshop where we figured it all out. We just improvised the whole thing.

BN – The satellite of love?

JH – The satellite of love of and all that stuff came along, then at some point we said, hey this seems to be working, people like it, maybe we can go further with it. I happen to know this guy Stu Smiley, who worked on another show I had worked on, and he was starting this thing called the Comedy Channel. So we put together a sell tape and showed it to him, and it worked, they bought it.

BN – Do you watch a lot of bad movies now, like on a regular basis?

JH – I’m like everybody else, when I watch a movie, when I want to relax; I want to be taken away just like everybody else. I do have to look at a lot of bad movies for movie riffing, movies that are kind of forgotten movies. So I do a fair amount of that. I was just on the Prelinger Archives before you came. Someone asked me what’s a good public domain movie and I said, you should check that out, it’s a good resource. In fact, tonight I’m teaching a class in movie riffing through SIFF, and I’m using all movies from the Prelinger Archives. It’s just a treasure chest full of thousands of public domain movies that anyone can riff, and show publicly. But we’re using three movies from the Prelinger Archives tonight, to work on.

BN – What makes for a good movie to riff on?

JH – I think it works with any movie. My impression is, movies are kind of like a part of our culture, and we kind of need movies. We kind of have hopes for movies. Like when the Hobbit comes out, I’m kind of excited about it. I read the Lord of the Rings when I was in seventh grade. I kind of want to see it, and I’m excited about it. So movies I consider alive, are kind of out there, new movies, my impression is I don’t want to disrupt that for people. I don’t want to go, let me take my riff machine and riff on it. I would rather do movies that are…dead, you know, movies that aren’t alive, that are kind of forgotten. Then I think it’s okay to mess around with them. I don’t really want to disrupt that.

I just did this show in Austin with this group called Master Pancake Theater, and they’re movie riffers, and they go, you can do any movie you want. You want to do the Hobbit? And I was like no, that’s okay. I don’t do movies that are alive. I’m like a bacterium that only eats things when they’re dead. That to me is it. What I love most about movie riffing is, it takes things that are kind of forgotten and makes them fun again, it revives them and shows people. I think that’s one of the things people really like about Mystery Science Theater is it shows people all these movies they would never see.

BN – Right. You’ve introduced so many people to so many movies they’d never heard of before.

JH – It’s like they’re really off that radar. I like that so much. So riffing on movies that are super popular…I know people are really…I get asked that all the time, “What movie would you riff on right now? Tell us about it, let’s sit back and talk.” And I kind of go, you know I just don’t think that way, because I’m going to see that new movie and I’m hoping it works. I’m hoping I forget who I am, and I’m the Hobbit.

BN – I read that Sun Ra was a big influence on you.

JH – Oh yeah. I love Sun Ra. I think he was just this great figure in music. I was really so glad to reference him in the story of Mystery Science Theater, well just mostly “Rocket Number Nine”. It’s the satellite that goes around them. But I do really like him, and as time’s gone by I appreciate him more and more, and the premise of cool music and being a space traveler is just a great idea. I admired what he was doing and liked the music so much. I actually got to see Sun Ra’s band this summer, and just the idea that they’re out there doing it, and putting those ideas forward is just a great thing.

BN – Did you ever consider riffing on Space is the Place? Because I think that movie is ripe for it.

JH – I guess maybe, but it’s kind of hard for me to get my head around that, because I like him so much. It might be somebody else’s job to riff on that. There are just certain things I find…like for example, the show I’m doing right now Riffing Myself. I wrote it. I put it all together. I got it on its feet at the end of summer and got it going in the early fall. Around Halloween I had my first show, and I’m looking at it going, I don’t have any jokes. There are not enough jokes in it. People are going to expect this to be funny. I taught a class in movie riffing… What I did was… It’s too close to me, all these pictures of me growing up. It has too much meaning. So I sent it to some of my students. There were about four students who really blew me away, very talented movie riffers. So I sent it to them and said, give me some riffs, because I can’t do it. I can’t see it. It’s me. And they wrote back brilliant stuff, so half the jokes in Riffing Myself are from my students, because they can look at me and go, what’s funny about this picture? Sometimes my impression is, if you have something that’s kind of sacred – not sacred, but meaningful to you, it’s really hard to riff on. It takes a really special person to riff on something they really care about.

BN – Tell me a little bit more about Riffing Myself, and what that’s all about.

JH – Well, it’s a lot of what we’ve been talking about. It’s the story of how Mystery Science Theater happened, and some of the things I’ve learned about it. A lot of the things about Mystery Science Theater are very instinctual. Oh yeah, people like to say things during movies, is there a way to make a show about that? What’s a visual way you present that? How do the silhouettes come into play? Why is the story there? It’s mostly about that. I think there are 350, 400 images in it, so I just show them, and talk about them.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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